Trust and support teachers: My New Voice Scholarship panel speech

speaking yesterday at the Melbourne Convention Centre

speaking yesterday at the Melbourne Convention Centre

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel of ACEL New Voice Scholars (list of awardees here) at the Melbourne Convention Centre. As a representative of new Australian voices in educational leadership research, I spoke in front of an auditorium of 1200 educators in response to the provocation: ‘If you could wave a magic wand, how would you transform education?’

The following is a version of that speech (I tend to go off the cuff a bit, so it’s not identical). It is based on this think piece I wrote for the ACEL Perspectives publication which is more measured and referenced, and less rhetoric-laden than my speech. I’ve added links to other blog posts to this post, as feedback from those at the conference has been that they would like to know more about the school professional learning model about which I spoke.

Thank you to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders for offering me the platform-soapbox-orangecrate from which to speak passionately about what I think is important for leaders, teachers and students in our schools.

*                                                      *                                                      *

(Hello etc. …)

I am an English teacher by trade and have spent the last 17 years teaching and leading in schools in Australia and the UK. Most recently I have been leading a strategic project that developed a whole-school coaching model at my school, designed to do a number of things, including:

  • Improve teacher classroom practice;
  • Develop teachers’ capacities for reflection;
  • Depersonalise and open classrooms;
  • Develop a common language of practice; and
  • Improve the quality of professional conversation.

This intervention was strategically aligned, so it was top down in terms of being aligned with the strategic vision of the school, initiated by the principal and supported by the school board. But it was also middle out and bottom up, as the model was developed by teams of teachers, led by me. We took a deliberately slow process of prototyping, piloting, iterating and refining this context-specific intervention.

At the same time, while also parenting two small children, I completed a PhD in which I asked what it is that makes professional learning transformational and how school leaders can best lead professional learning for teachers.

(It was at this point that I said something like, “My doctorate was conferred in April, so if you see me around the conference, you can call me Dr Deb” which has resulted in everyone from the MC to delegates calling me ‘Dr Deb’ ever since!)

As someone who bestrides educational practice and research, I don’t believe there is a silver bullet or magic wand that can transform education, but I do believe we can work to positively influence it.

Two things we can focus on, in order to positively impact on our students’ learning, are the trust and growth of teachers.

At my school, we have developed a model for teacher growth that uses Cognitive Coaching, non-inferential lesson data, and the Danielson Framework for Teaching, to help teachers reflect on and grow their practice.

Non-inferential lesson data—that is, data that is, as much as possible, non-judgemental and informational—and shared standards of teaching, help our teachers to develop the depth and precision of their reflections on practice, while Cognitive Coaching helps teachers to surface their own thinking about how they can improve. Cognitive Coaching is not about solution-providing or advice-giving, but about mediating the thinking of teachers and helping them to find their own solutions to problems of practice, based on a belief in their internal capacity to do so. To paraphrase Dylan Wiliam: teachers know their own classroom and their own students best.

My PhD found that coaching, among other things, can transform teachers’ beliefs and practices. It also found that school leaders have an important part to play in leading the learning of teachers.

We need to avoid those policies and practices that pit teachers and schools against one another (such as merit pay), that promote competition and commodification, or that focus on external metrics, performative measures, rewards or punishments. These are all things that demotivate, de-professionalise and demean our profession.

To support teacher professional growth and improvement in practice, we need to focus on trusting teachers to be professionals with the capacity to grow. We need to properly support their growth through context-specific interventions for which we provide adequate training, sufficient time, appropriate resources, and processes to systematically review our effectiveness.

In this way, within our own schools, we can heighten teachers’ self-awareness, self-efficacy and collaborative expertise and positively influence student learning.

Should a coach be curious?

On Twitter recently I have noticed a few people talking about the qualities that a good coach might have. One of the qualities that has been raised more than once is that of being curious. During the last #educoachOC chat, I had this interchange with two respected voices in educational coaching, Christian van Nieuwerburgh and Chris Munro.

snippet of conversation from the last #educoachOC Twitter chat

snippet of conversation from the last #educoachOC Twitter chat

And it got me thinking. What might be the focus of a coach’s curiosity? Does being of valuable service as a coach involve being curious? Does being curious mean showing genuine interest in a coachee and demonstrating eagerness to hear the details of their experiences? Is it about paying close attention or finding out more? Does a coach’s desire to find out more make a coachee feel valued and empathised with, or does it sidetrack the purpose of the conversation?

The notion of coach curiosity rubs against the grain of Cognitive Coaching in which the coach–while encouraged to be open, inquiring, flexible, caring and compassionate–is instructed to set aside the following unproductive patterns of listening:

  • Autobiographical: This is ‘me too!’ listening in which the listener is compelled to share experiences of their own that they see as relevant to the speaker’s experiences. The coach needs to restrain their urge to be drawn into thinking or speaking about their own stories.
  • Solution: This is listening in which the listener is drawn to thinking up their own solutions to the listener’s problems. Rather than problem-solving, the job of the Cognitive Coach is to assume that a) the coachee knows their own context and problem best, and b) has the capacity to solve their own problems, using the coaching toolbox to help that person access their own internal capacities and thereby developing their self-efficacy.
  • Inquisitive: This is curious listening in which the listener wants to know more about the details of a particular situation. However, the purpose of a coaching conversation is not for the coach to know intimate details, or to provide advice, so what purpose does curiosity serve in a coaching conversation? Who is it helping?

This is what Art Costa and Bob Garmston write about inquisitive listening:

Inquisitive listening occurs when we begin to get curious about portions of the story that are not relevant to the problem at hand. Knowing what information is important is one critical distinction between consulting and coaching. As a consultant, a person needs lots of information in order to ‘solve the problem’. As a coach, a person needs only to understand the colleague’s perspective, feelings, and goals and how to pose questions that support self-directed learning. (Costa & Garmston, 2006, Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools, p.65)

Coaching is a form of self-restraint: setting aside personal preferences; refraining from telling one’s own stories; withholding one’s own ideas or advice. Coaching is a service and the coach a servant. The coach is mirror, conduit, bucket in the well, water on the grass; a gentle influence that helps the coachee be the best version of themselves, and move towards where it is that they want to go with increasing capacity. In Cognitive Coaching this capacity development is focused around the Five States of Mind: consciousnesses, craftsmanship, efficacy, flexibility and interdependence.

So, should a coach be curious, or is curiosity a form of self-ish, rather than self-less, listening? If a coach’s questions are focused on seeking to understand the inner details of a coachee’s experiences, is that of value to the coachee? Often I find that as a coach I don’t need to know details. The coachee knows the details of their own situations and their thinking is benefited by being able to focus on where they want to go, rather than recounting minutiae for my benefit.

When I am being coached—my thoughts flying and forming and jelling and tumbling—I don’t necessarily want to be diverted by the well-intentioned interest of the coach. A coach’s curiosity to know more can sometimes take me from my own desire to move forward in my thinking, backwards or sideways to having to explain the specifics of my situation. My coach might not know the context or background of my issue, but I do. I don’t need help knowing the situation I am in; I need help to think my way to future solutions and successes. I want a coach to be present, to listen attentively, to hear, to paraphrase, and to ask me well-crafted questions that I haven’t thought to ask myself. Coaches might ask themselves: ‘If I’m being curious in this conversation, is that about me and what I want to know, or is it of benefit to the coachee?’

What do you think? Should coaches be curious, and if so, about what? If coaches are on a need-to-know basis, what exactly do they need to know?

Reflections on coaching after ISCAPPED 2016

ISCAPPED2

The International Symposium for Coaching and Positive Psychology in Education (ISCAPPED) happened in Sydney this week. It involved two days of keynotes, breakout sessions and corridor conversations by academics, pracademics and practitioners committed to researching, implementing and sharing their coaching and positive psychology work in schools around the world, and specifically in Australia. The yoking of two fields meant that it was possible to glean the differences in the arenas and the places at which they intersected. What stood out to me as a point of difference was the language used; while positive psychology sessions tended to use words like ‘self-esteem’ and ‘strengths’, coaching presentations were around ‘efficacy’ and ‘capacity’.

I presented twice at the symposium, once with colleagues, on the journey of our coaching model for teacher growth, and once on the coaching findings of my PhD research, which was set against the context of that school-based coaching model for teacher professional learning.

My colleagues and I outlined the story of the development of our model from its strategically-aligned beginnings, to its teacher-owned development and its whole-school implementation. Our presentation included a structured conversation that used some of the basics of Cognitive Coaching: the pattern of pausing, paraphrasing and posing cognitively-mediative questions, while setting aside the coach’s own patterns of unproductive listening. Our selection of coaches is based on beliefs that, while everyone is coachable and has the capacity to improve, not everyone can be a good coach.

I then shared my PhD research alongside Alex Guedes, who has also conducted research against the backdrop of a school-based coaching model for teacher capacity building. This presentation, which occurred under lights on the stage on which the keynotes were presented, covered the context, foci, method and findings of our PhD studies, with a particular focus on coaching. My findings, which I explore in more detail in this paper in the International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, include that coaching can be an empowering, identity-forming, relationship-building and language-shaping experience. They also include that coaching, while not a silver bullet, can be an effective part of positive organisational growth.

These findings resonate with Costa and Garmston’s notion of holonomy, in which the parts and the whole are both separate and together; the individual and the organisation grow and influence one another. Identities, language and understandings are collectively constructed. Congruent tools like Cognitive Coaching and the Danielson Framework for Teaching can be used to grow people, teams and systems, within environments and relationships of trust. In the coaching intervention that provided the context for my study, and that continues to operate in my school, non-judgemental data provides a ‘third point’ in coaching conversations, in order to depersonalise teacher reflections. Another third point is the Danielson Framework, our shared standards of teaching practice.

lucky enough to catch Vivid Sydney while we were there

lucky enough to catch Vivid Sydney while we were there

Coaching is hard cognitive work. This Monday, the #educoachOC Twitter chat will explore listening in a coaching context. I’ve recently been exposed to another string to the listening toolbox I use when coaching, which has thus far included careful listening for spoken language use, purposeful paraphrasing and watching eye movement to gauge what thinking is going on for the coachee. Recently, Bruce Wellman, author of The Adaptive School and Learning-focused supervision, came to work with my school on a variety of things. He worked with our team of coaches on something he calls non-verbal paraphrasing. He ran a workshop with us and shared his paper titled, ‘Nonverbal elegance when paraphrasing’.

Bruce couches this idea in research from anthropology, linguistics, cognitive science and neuroscience. Gesture, he explains, reduces the cognitive load of the speaker, saving energy by communicating information through body as well as spoken language. It is also primal in that gestures can reflect emerging or intuitive understandings. That is, our physicality can express those things we might not yet have words to express, or those things we are wrestling with between our knowing and not knowing.

In a coaching context, our brain’s mirror neurons help us to show empathy with the coachee, and we can also be deliberate about mirroring body language in order to be in rapport. Bruce suggests that additionally, we can “listen with our eyes”, watching for how someone’s body language extends, amplifies or makes clearer their thinking. Paying careful attention to how coachees use their hands—to explain concepts, sequence events or place people in their internal world—is a powerful listening skill. It allows the coach to paraphrase, not just the words the coachee uses, but also the physical referencing. Since doing this workshop I’ve noticed myself paying more attention to gesture, and trying to reflect back coachees’ gestures during my paraphrasing.

(Side note: As I type this I’m finding that I am gesturing between keystrokes as I try to figure out my ideas and the words I’ll use to express them. Perhaps that’s because Bruce Wellman’s concept of non-verbal paraphrasing is new to me, and my primal brain is helping me figure out my understandings. I’ve spoken a lot about writing as a mode of inquiry – writing to understand. I’m wondering now about gesturing as a mode of inquiry – gesturing to understand. *gesticulates wildly*)

So there are multiple skills to coaching, which can be honed and developed over time, but as Christian van Niewerburgh’s keynote pointed out, the coaching process and coaching skills aren’t enough. They are necessary but not sufficient. I agree with Christian when he says that transformative coaches are those who adopt coaching as a way of being. I also agree with him that coaching needs a theoretical and evidence base. Coaching isn’t a recipe on a laminated sheet. It is more than a process, a conversation or something anyone can do after a quick training session in which they are given a conversational formula.

Cognitive Coaching, which is the model in which I am trained and that my school uses in our context, is deeply rooted in research, and layered with multiple lenses and skills. The research base for Cognitive Coaching is most rigourously explored in Art Costa and Bob Garmston’s Cognitive Coaching text, now in its third edition (the previous editions were called Cognitive Coaching: A foundation for Renaissance schools). Other references include this 2003 paper on why Cognitive Coaching persists. These references and others (I have plenty!) tease out the reasons why coaching, done well, can be powerful and transformative.

Coaching is not mentoring, or telling, or advice giving, or passing judgement, or giving ‘helpful’ tips that make the feedback-giver feel like they’re being really useful. It is trusting in the capacity of the other person to solve their own problems, decide on their own trajectory of growth and consider how best to improve. The coach’s difficult work is in expertly and deliberately using a toolbox of knowledge and skills. These knowledge and skills are deliberately used as well as internalised and woven into the coach’s way of being, to help move the person’s thinking forward. That’s where the ‘cognitive’ in Cognitive Coaching comes in. The coach mediates thinking, because thought is what drives action. Changing thinking changes behaviour. It’s in the ‘a-ha’ moment, which cognitive coaches call ‘cognitive shift’, that individuals are transformed from the inside out. The magic is that the coach is mirror, conduit, provocateur and nudger, but it is the person being coached who does the thinking and finds their way.

Reflections on researchED Melbourne #rEdMel

I’ve landed back in Perth after a whirlwind trip to Melbourne for this year’s researchED conference. This post is an attempt to unravel the tangled threads in my head, after what was a big day of thinking, listening and talking.

On coaching: Our panel

Being on a panel with Corinne Campbell, Chris Munro and Jon Andrews was the highlight of the day for me. That included not only the panel presentation but the opportunity to be in the same place, at the same time, able to flesh out our ideas about coaching together (as well as plenty of other educational issues).

Founder of researchED, Tom Bennett, saw the four of us working together early in the day and joked that it was like four Avengers coming together in one movie. That struck a chord with me, because we are four individuals deeply committed to making a difference in our own contexts, in four different Australian cities. But we’ve come together across social media time and space to collaborate on #educoachOC, a monthly Twitter chat on coaching in education, which aims to centralise, clarify and tease out the global conversation around coaching in schools. I met Corinne and Chris for the first time at last year’s researchED conference in Sydney, the first Australian iteration. I hadn’t met Jon until yesterday, yet we’ve been collaborating for months, and talking about practice, writing, leadership and coaching.

So getting together with my fellow Avengers was like landing in my nerd heartland for a day. We are, however, less about avenging and more about advocating for supporting teachers and trusting in their capacities for improvement. Coaching was revealed in the panel discussion as an enhancement and growth process, not a deficit model for fixing underperformers.

Our panel seemed well-received, and I learned from my fellow panellists as we covered what we mean by coaching, why each of our schools adopted coaching, what it looks like in each school, the impacts we’ve noticed, and the broader implications for coaching in schools. We explored issues of trust, implementation and mandation. We considered the conference theme: how coaching might fit with ‘working out what works’. On the one hand coaching does not prescribe ‘what works’ to coachees, and yet coaching has been shown to work. It is a researched but contested approach to learning and growth, with coaching models varying in intent and execution. Coaching is about practitioners being given the time and space to work out what works, for them, in their contexts.

On research ethics: My presentation

My individual presentation was on a topic I later described on Twitter as the unsexy undergarments of research: ethics. Necessary and crucial, but often viewed as unexciting. I looked at ethical considerations and decision making, for teachers researching their own schools, using my PhD study as an example.

I shared this quote from Helen Kara’s book Creative research methods in the social sciences:

Ethics should underpin every single step of research, from the first germ of an idea to the last act after dissemination. And ethical problems require ethical decision-making – which allows for creativity.

Here, Helen reminds researchers that ethics is creative problem solving. It does have to be well-considered, systematic, respectful and just (see the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research), but it doesn’t need to be tedious.

I outlined the ethical challenges in my PhD, and the ways in which I grappled with those and made decisions. My operationalising of ethical solutions included writing information letters and consent forms; using an independent interviewer to interview teacher participants (and a rigorous approach to protecting teacher identities); designing deliberate interview protocols; drawing data together into composite stories; and utilising metaphor to protect participants while making interpretive meaning.

I discussed the benefits and limitations to being a researcher embedded in one’s own context. Below are the implications and questions I ended with.

Evidence-based practice in education

Among other presentations, I saw two on using evidence and research in schools, one by Gary Jones and another by Ray Swann. What I enjoyed about both approaches to evidence-based and research-informed practice in schools, is that they promoted valuing of not only the ‘best available evidence’, but also the wisdom of practice of teachers and school leaders. That is, they valued tacit knowledge and the expertise that comes with lived experience. They also acknowledged the value-laden and culturally-influenced nature of using evidence in schools. I think these are important layers to understanding what works in schools, and how schools can work towards finding what is shown to work in other contexts, and how they might therefore pursue what works in their own.

What I enjoy about Gary’s work is that he provides explicit frames for applying systematic approaches to evidence-based practice. He manages to make sense of the complexities of evidence-based practice, in order to communicate it with clarity, and in a way that educators can understand and apply. I recommend reading his blog and his handbook for evidence-based practice.

The researchED Avengers?

Thinking back to Tom’s analogy of the Avengers, the crowd at researchED is kind of like a room of fantastical superheroes. Here were close to 200 educators—teachers, school leaders, researchers and professors, each with their own individual gifts, talents, passions, stories and arenas of expertise—spending their Saturday dedicated to learning, connecting and talking about working out what works in education. There were some great questions from the audiences in the sessions I attended. Those that got me thinking included:

“Who decides what the ‘best available evidence’ is and how do they decide?”

“Where should coaching happen and how long should a coaching conversation be?”

“If you were start your research again, would you make the same decisions?”

There were also great comments, questions and provocations from those educators on Twitter who were engaging with the conference hashtag from afar, adding another level of richness to the online and offline conversations.

When Dylan Wiliam popped into the speakers’ dinner, it added a further layer to discussions. Here was another educator coming out to talk education on a Saturday night, after coming straight from presenting at a national conference, and before getting up the next day to present all day again. For me, it was great to be able to discuss his new book, Leadership for Teacher Learning, the use of the Danielson Framework for Teaching, and performance pay.

Tom describes researchED as built on and powered by (I’m paraphrasing and embellishing here) blood, sweat, volunteers and fairy dust. That is, those supporting this conference, around the world—including participants, presenters and schools—care deeply about education. These are people dedicated to making classrooms and schools better places for better learning.

It was a pleasure to be part of the conversation for the second year in a row. I’ve been left with plenty to think about.

_____________________

And some more reading …

You can see my reasons for attending researchED Melbourne 2016 here.

Jon Andrews has shared his reflections on Melbourne’s researchED here.

Pamela Snow has written this post about her presentation at yesterday’s researchED on justice re-investment.

Greg Ashman wrote this post about his day at researchED.

Gary Jones wrote this post reflecting on Melbourne’s researchED.

Susan Bradbeer has written this post about her experience of researchED from afar, as someone who followed the conversation on social media and the blogosphere.

Tom Bennett had some reflections after the Melbourne event, published here on the TES blog.

You can see my reflections on researchED Sydney 2015 here.

Santa Claus Phenomenon: The hidden magic of coaching & leading

It’s not until you’re a grown up that you realise Christmas doesn’t just ‘happen’. That magical day was pulled together by the incredibly stressed adults in your family. ~ Rosie Waterland in this post about Christmas

Sometimes in adult life we engineer magic. With glee we secretly make the miraculous and enchanting happen for others.

As parents, we realise how engineered the magic of Christmas is. We kind of know it when we discover that our parents are really Santa, but it’s not until we create Santa for our own children that we appreciate the hard work that goes into it.

All the preamble, that constant constructing of stories of Santa and reindeer and the intricate goings-on of Christmas Eve. Answering questions about store Santas and how Santa gets into the house and where the reindeer park the sleigh. Stealthy gift shopping, gift assembling and gift wrapping. On Christmas Eve there’s waiting until the children are definitely asleep and then assembling the gifts, artfully nibbling a cookie, enthusiastically chomping a carrot, dusting snowy footprints to the tree (and then closing the pet out so they don’t ruin the footprints overnight). This is magic that requires long term planning and strategic operation. 

Then: Christmas morning! Children wake. Santa’s magic comes alive. The Santa narrative seems not only possible, but real and wonderful. The children shower gratitude on the mysterious and benevolent figure of Santa. There are joyous cries of, “Thank you, Santa!” and “Santa got me exactly what I wanted!” How they glow with appreciation for the jolly red fellow and his generosity. Somehow he knew exactly what they needed at this point in their lives.

Of course, I do all of this because I enjoy the looks of amazement on my children’s faces and the thought that they feel part of something fantastical. But sometimes, as a parent, I secretly think, ‘It was us! It’s us you should be thanking!’ In these moments, I want my children to realise that all that joy is down to my husband and I. We contrived and concocted this whole thing. Of course I don’t ruin the magic. I encourage their belief and enjoy their wonder (they are currently 4 and 5). But part of me still sometimes wants recognition for all the hard work of being Santa and providing the magic.

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

Christmas Eve vignette from our place

There are two professional roles where I think this Santa Claus Phenomenon (no, it’s not a thing; I just made it up) plays out in professional life: the coach and the leader. It’s not that these roles are magical, but both have a sense of hard work going on behind the scenes, potentially without recognition from the recipient. Like the parents acting as Santa, both roles require the person to provide others with what they most need in that moment.

Coaching is hard cognitive work. In this post, I used the metaphor of the duck to describe the coaching experience; the duck’s legs paddle manically below the surface while above the water, all seems serene. So the coach works hard, but in order to be effective, this work needs to be imperceptible to the coachee. In fact, in order to best serve the coachee, the work of the coach needs to draw out and draw on the coach’s inner resources, so that they shine brightly. The coach is the hidden passageway or the mirror to self.

Similarly, a leader who empowers their staff can sometimes feel like the unsung hero. This kind of leadership is the subtle and invisible kind. Stepping back so others can step forward. Subtly coaching and nudging and encouraging and scaffolding. This isn’t brave sword-wielding white-knight stuff, the celebrated charismatic leader on the public stage. It’s about believing in and nurturing others’ capacities, in sometimes imperceptible ways. It is hard work with plenty of setting up and engineering for successes, but it’s done quietly in the background and sometimes no one sees this leader’s careful preparation and toil.

How do coaches who want to build the internal resources of their coachees, and leaders who aim to build their organisations by developing their people, interact with the Santa Claus Phenomenon? How do coaches and leaders celebrate or measure their wins? One way in a coaching conversation is in the responses to the question at the end in which the coach asks something like “How has your thinking shifted from the beginning of the conversation to now?” Leaders can know their own impacts by tracking the progress of their teams and individuals. But perhaps in both cases, others won’t notice the impacts, or the careful steps the leader conducted to get there.

I’ve written a paper for the Heroism Science conference that explores the idea of the less-visible leader. The leader who empowers. The coach who helps develop the coachee’s self-efficacy through layered and complex, but barely visible, practice. I wonder how this kind of leadership plays out in reality. Is the knowledge of one’s own impact enough? What happens when others don’t recognise that a coach or leader is engineering the magic? What if, from outside, it seems like the coach or leader isn’t doing anything? Is that as it should be–the noble but unseen work of coaching and leadership–or is it problematic?

Coaches, fit your own oxygen masks! How do we support the coach’s needs?

As a coach, and leader of a team of coaches, I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the needs of the coachee. Coaching is all about the coachee. The context in which coaching happens must establish and maintain trust. In my school, this means that the coaching conversation, when it happens with one of our team of trained cognitive coaches, is confidential. The details of any observed lessons or coaching conversations are not passed on outside of the coach-coachee relationship. Line managers are still expected to be aware of the teaching, development and work of their staff. Managers might pop in to lessons and conduct their own conversations, but the person’s coach is not a place for others to glean information. We have been very deliberate about protecting the sanctity of the coach-coachee relationship as, without trust, the conversation is no longer a safeguarded space for formalised reflection. It would become tainted with hints of evaluation, accountability and fear that could hinder honesty and prevent vulnerability.

A coach uses their coaching toolbox of strategies and awarenesses to minister to the coachee. To reflect, facilitate, provoke and deepen the coachee’s thinking, by paraphrasing and asking questions, while applying a nuanced understanding of non-verbal language and of cognition. When coaches reflect, they do so to develop their craft in order to better help others to build internal capacity, to better create a non-judgmental space for coachees to freely explore their thoughts and experiences, to paraphrase with more precision or question with more sophistication, to more deeply internalize the many layers of coaching knowledge and practice.

But recently I’ve been wondering about the needs of the coach. I’ve been a coach in some coaching conversations which have been emotional or confronting for the coachee. I’ve found myself affected by the emotion of the conversation, deeply immersed as I am in rapport with that person. I have left these conversations wanting to debrief, but aware of the moral obligation to maintain confidentiality for my coachee. When confidentiality is promised to the coachee, so that the conversation can be a safe space for talk, where can the coach go to reflect on their own experiences? How does a coach refine their practice if they are unable to share their experience of the conversation?

Coaches require somewhere for the coach to go in order to refine their coaching practice through reflection and planning, and as a tool for self-care. Fit your own oxygen mask before helping others, and all that. What support do coaches need? Who coaches the coaches? Where and how might they access support in ways which are mindful of the trust put in the coach to be trusted fortress of coachee information? What responsibility do organisations have in providing support structures for their coaches?

I’m lucky to work with a team of coaches at my school. We have all been trained in Cognitive Coaching, in non-inferential lesson observations and in using the Danielson Framework for Teaching as a tool for teacher reflection. In our meetings and in our Voxer group, we are able to debrief with each other to some extent, or to throw out questions to the collective mind when we come up against coaching challenges. We never use coachees’ names in these discussions or divulge identifiable information, so we tend to talk cautiously around issues or questions we have. For example: How might we differentiate our coaching model for highly-reflective or highly experienced teachers? What questions might be useful for surfacing deeper or more abstract thinking? How might we respond in a coaching conversation which becomes highly emotional for the coachee? We might have textbook answers from our training, but talking about and around these sorts of questions helps us to tease out our beliefs about coaching, our coaching practices and the tensions within our specific context. It helps to develop our shared understandings and language of coaching, as a collaborative group of coaches.

Ideally, a coach would be provided the opportunity to be coached on their coaching. In my coaching team we sometimes participant in meta-coaching (coaching about coaching) with each other. While we don’t ask our coachees to permit us to collect data during conversations, we can do this when we coach each other. A video or audio recording, or a transcript of questions and paraphrases, can act as data on which the coach can be coached around their own practice. We tend to do this in training or within our own coach group, so as not to impact our conversations with coachees. There’s nothing more likely to shatter the sense of a trusting, safe space than setting an iPad or dictaphone on the table to record the conversation!

Of course a coach can debrief at home, to a partner or family member, which might allow an opportunity to download. But this won’t necessarily provide a high level of support in working through an issue or experience.

Another possibility is finding support from coach-educators outside one’s own school context. I’m grateful to have connected with other Australian educators who are using and leading coaching in their own schools. On Voxer, we are able to discuss the issues in our own contexts, again without divulging names or identities of others. I can ask a question of the group and receive thoughtful, informed feedback from those who share my view of coaching but have different tools and knowledge at their disposal. Sometimes a paraphrase from another coach is all I need to see my own issue more clearly. Coaches informally coaching coaches, at point of need. It’s brilliant DIY professional support. I’ve found this invaluable in allowing me to think aloud about, and be coached through, wonderings or experiences, while protecting the confidentiality of my coachees.

Learning through sharing with other coaches is one reason that a few of us—myself, Chris Munro, Corinne Campbell and Jon Andrews—started the monthly Twitter chat #educoachOC. This one hour chat, which we co-moderate on the first Monday of each month, is a vehicle for bringing together those involved in coaching in education. The discussions are often rich and allow coaches, and those leading coaching initiatives in schools and systems, to explore the commonalities and differences, privileges and challenges. I emerge from that hour feeling understood and invigorated.

Being a coach (like being a principal or CEO, I imagine) can be lonely work, because the coach is required to keep what’s said in the coaching conversation, in that coaching conversation. As coaches, it’s important that we find ways to develop our practice and support our own needs, while protecting the trust of the coaching relationship. We need to support coaches, so that coaches can best address the needs of those they coach.

Using coaching in qualitative research interviews

being interviewed about my research

being interviewed about my research, in front of Sydney Harbour

In my last post, I tried to illuminate some of the internal dialogue and thinking that goes on in the coach’s mind during a coaching conversation. On Twitter, in response to that post, Avril Nicholl reminded me that being deliberate about interaction, and explicit about role, is applicable to qualitative interviewing. So in this post I’ll explain how I used my coaching toolbox when I was conducting qualitative interviews for my PhD.

My PhD experience of the qualitative interview comes from both participant and researcher perspectives. I interviewed one group of participants for my study, as interviewer and researcher. But ethical issues resulted in another group, and me, being interviewed by an independent interviewer. So I was interviewer, designer of protocols and questions for someone else to interview some participants, and an interviewed participant in my research.

Interview is a widely used way of generating data, especially when the researcher is seeking to explore feelings, relationships, beliefs, identities, and insights about people in action in their social worlds. As I discussed here, the creation of meaning is a complex interaction dependent on meaning-maker and context. Narrative researchers often agree that participant stories are not fully formed, waiting to be drawn from the person. Rather, meanings are made on the spot; shaped by the questions asked, the interview structure, the interview environment and the interviewer themselves. Interviews do not just recall knowledge; they produce it, in the moment.

Anecdotally, I experienced this myself in being interviewed for my study by the independent interviewer, who I had briefed on interviewing me and other participants. I had written the questions and the protocols, so I was surprised by the experience of being interviewed for my own study. In thinking aloud, or being probed to think further or differently, my own thinking was not only illuminated, but deepened, extended and re-shaped, even though I knew what the questions and foci beforehand.

The interviews for my PhD sat somewhere between semi-structured and un-structured, designed to elicit storytelling from participants. I wanted to, as narrative research doyenne Catherine Riessman suggests, “follow participants down their diverse trails” (in ‘Analysis of personal narratives’, 2002). I wanted interviews to be less about my agenda (although of course my study had its foci) and more about surfacing participant stories in all their messiness and humanness.

Planned questions were sparing; there were only a few. These were based on the phenomena on which the study focused. Mostly, these anchor questions started with, “Tell me about …” There were also suggestions for probing questions. The interviews were designed to be broadly consistent for each participant (in question order and focus) but the structure of the interview was flexible enough to explore tangents which emerged from each participant’s responses.

When interviewing, I was explicit about my role as researcher and interviewer, especially because I was interviewing people from within my own professional context. I used my coaching toolbox to give me a structure and approach for research interviewing. I applied an interviewer listening pattern of ‘pause, paraphrase, ask question’ (borrowed from Costa & Garmston’s 2006 Cognitive Coaching). This interview structure encouraged participant storytelling, while allowing patterns and idiosyncracies to emerge.

I was aware of leaving space in conversation for pausing and thinking, rather than jumping in when there was silence (as I mentioned in my previous post, restraint and pausing are areas of personal mindfulness for me). My coaching training on eye movement (see visual representation above for more on how to recognise eye cues) allowed me to see what sort of thinking the interviewee was doing, which helped me to wait while that thinking happened; I knew if I jumped in with another question I would be interrupting the person’s internal dialogue or their recollection of an experience. Usually the silence in the interviews didn’t last long but instead was a jumping off point for the participant to speak further; it was a space in which the interviewee was thinking and after which their story would continue.

I found that, rather than asking questions, I was attempting to distil, clarify, or abstract the person’s thinking with a well-considered paraphrase. While the focusing questions were necessary to direct responses onto the research foci, a Cognitive Coaching approach allowed me to ‘get out of the way’ of participants, following them along their own stories as they directed and developed their own responses. After the interviews I had feedback from a number of participants who said that for them the interview was useful, a great conversation, and a luxurious space in which to reflect on their own professional selves and practices. The research interview was valued by participants as an opportunity which provided the space and structure for learning and reflection.

My Cognitive Coaching training also helped to bring to my awareness, during the interviews, to the importance of trust, rapport, body language mirroring, pausing and paraphrasing. Conscious of maintaining rapport, I did not take notes, but allowed a Dictaphone to capture the audio. I watched the conversation body language in a kind of meta out-of-body looking-in-from-outside experience, and often found myself mirroring the interviewee’s body language. I was mindful of how participants used their bodies and hands to express their ideas and their relationships to things. This allowed me to pick up on the nuances of their thinking. Were they sequencing points on their fingers or in the air in a linear pattern? Were they expanding themselves and their ideas out into abstraction or magnitude, or bringing them close to their chests, showing something was dear to them? Non-verbal cues helped me to paraphrase participants’ responses.

For me, coaching and being coached has influenced the way I have conversations in all sorts of arenas. As a parent, as a partner, as a friend, as a teacher and as an interviewer. As a PhD candidate and neophyte researcher, the coach’s toolbox was helpful in developing my approach to qualitative interviews. As interviewer and coach, my PhD interview transcripts and audio provided data for reflection on my practices.

While the role and purpose of a research interviewer is different to the role and purpose of a coach, the principles and skills are transferrable: belief in the capacity of the individual, active listening, paraphrasing, asking questions which mediate thinking, and keeping oneself (coach/interviewer) out of the conversation. Both kinds of conversation – coaching and research interviewing – should be primarily about the person doing the thinking, talking, sharing, storytelling. Although the coach or interviewer of course influences the words and thoughts generated, they should aim to be almost-invisible catalyst, mirror and conduit.